What Can We Learn from the Pfeffermans?
Most people have at least heard of Amazon’s groundbreaking television show, Transparent, which along with transgender actress Laverne Cox of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and movies such as Tangerine, are pushing transgender stories from the margins into the mainstream. But to single out Transparent simply for highlighting a topic that’s still taboo in most of the television world is to overlook the other half of the show’s DNA – its significant reliance on Jewish themes and customs to weave its tale. It may seem an arbitrary combination, as the show is based in part on creator Jill Soloway’s own Jewish family and transgendered parent, but advocacy for LGBTQ rights has a long history among progressive Jews.
Season one follows Mort Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor in his Emmy-winning role) as he transitions to Maura. This shift serves as a catalyst for her three grown children’s own struggles to become full-fledged adults. The second season, more serious in tone, delves more deeply into the roots of the Pfeffermans’ search for meaning and identity, one that takes us from the eldest daughter Sarah’s Jewish marriage to Tammy, her lover, all the way back to 1930s Berlin, where we are introduced to the Pffeferman’s secret transgendered ancestor, Gitl.
The flashbacks to Berlin are channeled through Ali, the youngest sibling and only family member digging into her Jewish past and ancestry. Ali, arguably the central character and possible stand-in for Soloway herself, is exploring a hunch that there is a connection between Maura’s transition and her family’s history as Jewish refugees. It’s as if Ali is speaking for Soloway when she tries to explain the thesis of her graduate school admissions essay, in which she attempts to define her “trans” parent in ancestry: “…they have this weird rift …there’s just like this giant chasm of some kind of grief…maybe there is something there.”
While Soloway has denied that there is a greater meaning to the juxtaposition of transgenderness and Jewishness, season two, in looking to assemble the bigger picture, seems to be subtly arguing with her.
Ali isn’t the only Pfefferman turning to the Jewish experience for guidance. Maura’s son, Josh, has gotten more serious with his girlfriend, Raquel, the family’s rabbi. Unlike any of the Pfeffermans, she knows who she is and what she wants. Raquel is a stand-in for Judaism itself, scolding Josh for his sins on Yom Kippur and offering hope to Sarah as she wallows in self-pity. The younger generation of Pfeffermans, wanderers in a spiritual wilderness, circles back to the well-grounded Raquel in their greatest times of need. Without being preachy, Soloway is positing that in times of confusion, Judaism offers guidance, at least to Jews.
When seen through a historical lens, the legacy of being hated, feared, and persecuted that Soloway uses to link Jews and transgendered people also is a vehicle to explore, in a bittersweet way, the consequences of intolerance toward every individual and group that has been stigmatized and victimized for being “other.”
What Soloway accomplished in looking at transgender and Jewish identity issues on television, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, took up at its 2015 Biennial convention, when its leadership passed a resolution that “affirmed its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.”
The Pfefferman family is presented as unabashedly Jewish with all its mishegas (craziness). But, clearly, it is also a dysfunctional American family. And although transgender rights and Jewish customs might be exotic to some Americans, there is nothing more universal than the trials and tribulations of the modern family.
If we can accept a Jewish-American queer family as one of us, then perhaps acceptance of people of all sexualities, taking their rightful place in the tapestry of American life, is not far behind.